I got dumped for Clint Eastwood on a golf date. I choked hitting a shot in front of Morgan Pressel. I was moved listening to Erik Compton’s brother explain how their remarkable family happily endures, and I practically leaped out of my shoes watching the most exciting birdie I’ve ever seen.
This column comes with a “first-person” warning.
As you’ve already observed, it’s a highly personalized look back at 2010.
My golf travels don’t take me out every week, but this is my eyewitness account of 10 poignant moments that moved me this year:
A different kind of cat
A few years back, I was standing under “The Tree” behind the Augusta National Clubhouse when Tiger Woods strode out of the locker room door on his way to a practice round at the Masters.
It was classic Tiger.
His eyes were locked on his destination, the practice putting green. He came out marching briskly, purpose in every stride. With a cluster of cameramen racing to keep up, one poor fellow tried to stay in front of Woods for his shot. Backpedaling furiously, he slammed into a low-hanging branch. Never saw what hit him. Woods didn’t break stride, didn’t flinch, didn’t even seem to blink on his way to the green. I remember thinking there isn’t an uncertain cell in Tiger’s body.
I was there again last spring, when Woods played a Monday practice round. It was his first public appearance since the sex scandal broke.
As I followed Woods that day, I kept thinking: “Who is this guy?” The purposeful stride, the certainty of gesture, were gone. He wandered the course more than he marched it. There was almost timidity in the way he gratefully and uncertainly reached out to fans who followed him. He later acknowledged he was nervous about what patrons would think of him. That Monday will always remind me what Tiger Woods faced in trying to find himself and his game in his new life.
Cristie lets her hair down
With Cristie Kerr walking onto the 18th green at the end of her record 12-shot victory at the LPGA Championship, she literally let her hair down. She took off her cap, undid her pony tail and shook out her long, blonde locks to the delight of the fans who cheered her there. The win made her the first American to become No. 1 in the Rolex women’s world rankings.
“Who is this woman?” I remember thinking.
As a South Florida golf writer, I saw Kerr in her early years, when she was a pudgy, bespectacled teenager who left her spike marks on all the teens she demolished growing up. Sometimes, I felt like she had left her spike marks on me. This was a girl who played on the boys’ team at Miami Sunset High and once told Robert Floyd, the son of famed Raymond Floyd, that she was going to kick his butt before their match. And then she did kick his butt. This was a girl more fighter than golfer in spirit, but I’ll always remember her letting her hair down like never before in that record rout at Locust Hill.
What Clint Eastwood giveth, Clint Eastwood taketh away.
In my best assignment of the year, I was scheduled to play Pebble Beach for a story with the head professional, Chuck Dunbar. On the eve of the round, his assistant called to ask if I minded showing up early because a friend of Dunbar’s wanted to play with us. The friend, she said, was actor/comedian George Lopez.
With Lopez standing there, the first-tee jitters in my first round at Pebble Beach doubled. Lopez explained that he had a golf date scheduled with Eastwood at Cypress Point that morning but Eastwood had to cancel when an unexpected meeting came up. Lopez was personable, down-to-earth, a real golf fan. We talked about the upcoming Accenture Match Play Championship walking down the first fairway, about his friend Mike Weir on the second tee, but then Lopez’s cell phone rang at the third tee box. It was Clint Eastwood. He was out of his meeting earlier than expected and wanted to know if George could still make a morning tee time at Cypress Point.
'Did I hit five shots or six on the last hole?' I thought to myself as Lopez was whisked away to meet up with Eastwood. 'To tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I lost track myself.'
For the young among you, that leads into a famous Eastwood line from Dirty Harry.
Dumped for Clint Eastwood and Cypress Point, I can live with that. A man, after all, has got to know his limitations. In the back of my mind, though, I’ll always wonder if George felt like Eastwood’s call was a reprieve after enduring two of my wayward tee shots.
People take this the wrong way, but I’ve always been more riveted listening to an athlete who has just endured a heartbreaking loss than one who’s just realized a dream.
There’s no sadistic delight waiting on a player who has just lost something, but you often learn a lot more about the nature of a player’s character when he's stripped bare.
That’s what I’ll remember about listening to Dustin Johnson when he came out of the locker room after his controversial penalty for grounding his club in a bunker at the end of the PGA Championship. While Johnson made himself look bad admitting he never read the local rules sheet that week, I sensed this was a man with an unwavering sense of himself despite what happened at Whistling Straits and the final round of the U.S. Open. He screwed up, but he wasn’t a screw up. That’s what I got standing next to Johnson that day. I left thinking this was a guy we were going to see put himself right back in the hunt because he wasn’t afraid of large moments or what they could do to him.
Choking under pressure
In my former life as the golf writer at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, I covered Morgan Pressel from the day she burst onto the scene as a 12-year-old who qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open. That’s what made me feel so awkward over my own shot in the Morgan & Friends Fight Breast Cancer Golf Tournament at her home club at St. Andrews in Boca Raton, Fla. Pressel’s helped raise more than $1.1 million in the fight over the last three years. She was on our tee box to help us hit a shot there.
“Randy,” she said. “Do you know this is the first time I’ve ever seen you swing a golf club?”
I promptly hooked my tee shot in the trees. It wasn’t a good year for me playing in front of professionals. I missed a 2-foot putt to lose a hole in front of Gavin Coles at Orange County National.
Getting a grip
I wrote that when Arnold Palmer stepped out his front door for the taping of Golf Channel’s “12 Nights at the Academy,' you could swear the clouds stopped rolling to hold their position. At 81, Palmer still has a commanding presence. I got to step into his garage at Bay Hill with a half dozen other reporters to watch Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman lead Palmer through the show. It was a treat watching Palmer tinker in his garage, showing Tilghman exactly how his father taught him to grip the club.
“When I need to be alone and do my thing, this is where I go,” Palmer said of his garage. “It’s nice to get down here. It’s very quiet. Nobody knows where I am, unless I tell them. I get away from everything.”
Golf’s wildest setting
Being on the first tee at the start of a Ryder Cup makes you wonder if golf might be better off with chanting, heckling and booing.
It’s a crazy-stupid thought, but if you’ve ever been to the start of a Ryder Cup, you can’t help wondering.
Even a steady rain couldn’t dampen the mood at the start of the matches in Wales this fall. I was behind the first tee, getting soaked, when Stewart Cink lifted his cap to the massive crowd. Exposing his bald dome ignited one of many original moments there.
“We’ve got more hair!” Europeans began chanting with Cink laughing.
Golf’s most remarkable family
I followed Erik Compton during the first round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and wrote that just teeing it up made his the most remarkable performance in 110 years of the championship. He is, after all, the only player to qualify with not just one heart transplant behind him, but two.
I walked with Compton’s parents, Peter and Eli. I also walked with Compton’s wife, Barbara, and his older brother, Christian. They’re a remarkable family that remains strong and vital despite all their troubles. Eli is a cancer survivor. Christian’s also had his problems. He was temporarily paralyzed after breaking his neck in a snowboarding accident in college but has nearly completely recovered.
Christian delivered my all-time favorite quote that day putting his recovery into perspective. He offered words that captured the family’s good humor and brave spirit.
“In my family, a broken neck’s not enough to complain about,” Christian told me.
Goose bumps and golf shots
On the eve of the Ryder Cup, I walked parts of Celtic Manor with Larry Dorman of the New York Times.
Though the sun was slashing through the gray clouds over the Usk Valley, scouting the course was still a tricky proposition. The hillsides were mucky and wet and some folks were sporting dirty seat bottoms from their spills. But it was more than worth the walk with blue patches of sky opening as we made our way back to the 18th hole. Usk Valley was heavenly when the sun won its battles with the gloom there.
On the hillside above the finishing hole, we stopped to watch Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington play up with European captain Colin Montgomerie watching them. With McDowell walking to his shot, this wondrous music began wafting up from the bottom of the valley. It was soul-stirring stuff rising from a stage below, where Ryder Cup officials were preparing for the opening ceremony. It was the kind of sound that touched something ancient in your soul. It made you feel like charging a castle door. Or defending one. It was the Welsh National Anthem.
There must have been 15,000 people jammed on that hillside alone for the final practice round. When McDowell stuck his shot close to the flagstick, a roar erupted. The shot didn’t even count. I don’t get goose bumps at sporting events much anymore, but I got them there in a practice round.
Best birdie I ever saw
My favorite golf moment this year came near my home at Orange County National outside Orlando, Fla.
It’s a moment for golf fathers everywhere.
Orange County was host to the final stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament this year. Lots of fathers beamed over what their sons did on the Panther Lake and Crooked Cat courses at Q-School, but my moment unfolded a month earlier on the Tooth, the terrific executive course there. It’s a nine-hole trek that’s perfect for father-son or father-daughter bonding. Kids play for free.
My 11-year-old son, Jacob, playing just his fourth or fifth round of golf, set up at the eighth tee. He was determined to make his first par since learning the game. With the pin back, the par 3 was playing about 140 yards. There’s water guarding the front of the hole, bunkers left and right. With a fairway wood, Jacob hit a pretty little fade over the pond and hit the green with his ball running about 30 feet right of the flagstick. It might have been the first green he ever hit in regulation.
With Jacob over his putt, I wondered what it would be like if he actually ran the putt in for birdie. I found out. With his putt looking like it was going to die agonizingly short on the lip, the ball made one last glorious wobble and tumbled over the edge.
Jacob leaped, then I leaped, and I'm not certain we touched the ground until we floated home to tell his mom.
If you’re a father who plays golf with your child, I hope you have a moment as grand as that. If you don’t, I hope your moment awaits in a Happy New Year.Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell